Killing of a Chinese Bookie [1976]

Anyone expecting The Killing of a Chinese Bookie to be an action-packed film about a gangland murder is going to be sorely disappointed--the title is the only commercial element in this fascinating character study by writer-director John Cassavetes, who once again finds his cinematic soulmate in actor Ben Gazzara. Doing for sleazy Hollywood strip-joints and underworld bullies what Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets did for the denizens of New York's Little Italy, the film uses verité technique to tell the story of Cosmo Vitelli (Gazzara), a strip-club owner whose growing debt to a local gangster (the chilling Morgan Woodward) can only be erased if he agrees to kill a rival Chinese gangster. Reluctantly, Cosmo carries out the job with startling efficiency. As usual, Cassavetes employs his favorite actors (including Seymour Cassel and the fearsome Timothy Carey) and vivid improvisation to give Chinese Bookie a tense atmosphere of emotional urgency--the film's tone is one of keen desperation, as if we've been invited to witness Cosmo's dark night of the soul. Anyone who's unfamiliar with Cassavetes's style may find this film grating and impenetrable, but those in tune with the director's defiant independence will surely appreciate his emphasis on character, psychology, and revealing flashes of human behavior, captured on film as only Cassavetes could capture them. Watching this film, you can readily understand why Cassavetes has had such a steady influence on Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and a host of like-minded independent filmmakers. --Jeff Shannon

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